On the Record with DeKalb composer Jan Bach

October 23, 2017 GMT

DeKALB – Jan Bach of DeKalb shares more than his last name with classical music composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Jan Bach, 79, also is a composer, writing music professionally for more than 40 years.

Through his years with the U.S. Army Band, Bach played for both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson, and at Kennedy’s funeral. One of his operas was performed by the New York City Opera, his tuba quintet was performed at Carnegie Hall, he was nominated six times for the Pulitzer Prize in music, and a CD with one of his pieces, “Oompah Suite,” won the Roger Bobo Award for excellence in recording.


Bach taught music theory and composition at Northern Illinois University from 1966 to 1998. As a professor emeritus at NIU, he taught orchestration for another six years until 2004. His scholastic accolades include a Presidential Research Professorship grant in 1982 and being nominated for the National CASE Professor of the Year award six times.

A CD that was released in July, “With Strings Attached,” features one of Bach’s compositions from 1980, “Quintet for Tuba and String Quartet.” The CD, recorded by Edward Mallett and the Harlem Quartet, has been nominated for two 2018 Grammy Awards in the categories of chamber music and recording excellence.

Bach met with reporter Katrina Milton to discuss his music, compositions and Grammy Award nominations.

Milton: Tell me about the two Grammy nominations.

Bach: The CD, “With Strings Attached,” that has one of my compositions from 1980, “Quintet for Tuba and String Quartet,” has been nominated for spring 2018 Grammys in two categories: chamber music and recording excellence. The quintet is 26 minutes long. It was recorded in 2012 by Edward Mallett and the Harlem Quartet and came out in July 2017.

Milton: Do you have music on other CDs?

Bach: I have music on 30 CDs. One CD that is entirely mine, “The Music of Jan Bach,” came out in 2007. Performances of my music can be found on Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, CDs, cassettes, tapes, LPs, records, pretty much everything out there.

Milton: Have you always been interested in music?

Bach: I grew up in a farm community, Forrest, about 100 miles south of here. I often made my own entertainment. I drew a lot and played the piano and the French horn, but I was never that interested in sports aside from running and playing pingpong. Growing up, I thought that I’d be a cartoonist. Then I decided on music. Writing music is almost like drawing. It requires what I call “The three P’s:” pencil, paper and piano. Today a lot of composers write directly into the computer.


Milton: When did you start writing music?

Bach: I’ve been writing music since I was 7. My first song composition was “I’ll Catch That Mouse;” there were a lot of mice running around in our old house. My dad had a hardware store and lumberyard, and he sold Recordio recorders, which used paper disks. I made a few recordings on them for fun when I was young. I started playing the violin at 4 years old and then piano a couple of years later. In high school, they said they could use a French horn player in the band, and I was a natural.

Milton: Tell me more about yourself.

Bach: I was in the Army for three years and played for both President Kennedy and President Johnson. I also played at Kennedy’s funeral. After the Army, I taught in Tampa for a year, then I came to teach music composition in DeKalb. I later received my doctorate from the University of Illinois. I started teaching at NIU in 1966 and retired in 1998. I was a professor emeritus and taught orchestration for another six years until 2004.

Milton: Have you won any contests?

Bach: I won the Broadcast Music Inc. major prize as a sophomore at U of I in 1957, a $1,000 award, a trip to New York for my dad and myself, and three days at the Plaza Hotel. That represented a lot of money in that time. There was a contest by the New York City Opera at David H. Koch Theater, called the State Theater at that time. The Metropolitan Opera was on strike that year. Three one-act operas were chosen, and mine was one of them. My opera was “The Student from Salamanca,” based on two short plays by [Miguel de] Cervantes. When the contest was advertised, I had no idea what to write. Six years earlier I had written a comic opera, “The System,” based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, which had also been performed in New York. I decided to write another one based on a literary source. A friend, Jack Weiner, who taught Spanish at NIU, suggested two short plays by Cervantes, which I combined and then added original music. Both Time Magazine and the New York Times gave positive reviews. My picture was in People, standing on the steps of the opera house, along with the two other composers and Beverly Sills, the opera’s manager.

Milton: Describe the types of commissions you’ve had through the years.

Bach: I received about 20 commissions for several years on the strength of the Cervantes opera. I do about two commissions per year if lucky. Some of my most recent have been duets for the tuba and cello, for violin and steelpan, and currently the Chinese zither. I write concertos for orchestras or solos, many of which have been commissioned. I think that I have written 10 concertos for different instruments and orchestra: steelpan, piano, French horn, trumpet, tuba, euphonium, bassoon, harp, violin and viola. I am also still open to new commissions.

Milton: Who are some of your musical influences?

Bach: I first liked Don Gillis, who wrote pop music for children, but that was in high school. My longtime favorite composer is Benjamin Britten, whose works I analyzed for my doctoral dissertation.

Milton: How would you describe “good music”?

Bach: I think that good music tells a story. A good piece has highlights, climaxes and a satisfying ending. Good music will last over time because it is clear and has a story to tell. It also has variations in dynamics, tempo and texture, which most pop music doesn’t have. I try to include those parameters in my writing.

For information about Jan Bach and his music, visit www.janbach.com.